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Animal emotions aren’t very different from human feelings

Research proves that animals have consciousness, intelligence, emotional range—from love and grief to morality, and this underscores humans’ responsibilities toward other species

We cannot continue to operate as if animals are unthinking, unfeeling beings—machines—when science today tells a different story. Photo: Pixabay
We cannot continue to operate as if animals are unthinking, unfeeling beings—machines—when science today tells a different story. Photo: Pixabay

Scientists tell us bumblebees can recognize an object by touch or sight, as humans can across senses. We do this by imagining the object in our brains and it is likely bees do this too. Scientists are conservative about labelling bees as conscious as the concept is not well-defined, yet they cannot help but admit this demonstrates a likelihood of consciousness in bees. Bees can also learn by observing other bees, recognize human faces and do basic math.

Scientists now tell us animals can be cleverer than us, too. Dr Arthur Saniotis, an anthropologist with University of Adelaide’s School of Medical Sciences, has remarked, ‘For millennia, all kinds of authorities—from religion to eminent scholars—have been repeating the same idea ad nauseam, that humans are exceptional by virtue that they are the smartest in the animal kingdom. However, science tells us that animals can have cognitive faculties that are superior to human beings.’

When we consider that different species of animals require different abilities to thrive in their natural environments, this makes sense. A gibbon does not need to know how to file taxes, but she must be able to recognize which branches are the strongest at a glance—gibbons travel up to 15 metres with each swing and move faster than 55 kilometres an hour across the jungle canopy.

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What if intelligence tests were based on this or some of the countless other impressive traits animals have that we don’t? They are typically not, only because humans create these tests with just human qualities in mind. 

Dolphins and other toothed whales use echolocation for navigating the ocean and finding food,elephants appear to communicate over miles through foot-stomping,tigers and many other species leave complex messages through olfactory markings, pigeons use the Earth’s magnetic field to find their way over vast distances—the list goes on. Humans cannot naturally do any of these or many other things animals can do. We can only attempt to understand the full breadth of how animals make use of the information they gather through the unique ways they perceive the world. 

Maciej Henneberg, professor of anthropological and comparative anatomy at University of Adelaide, says, ‘The fact that they [animals] may not understand us, while we do not understand them, does not mean our “intelligences” are at different levels, they are just of different kinds…’

Scientists now know chickens show signs of self-awareness, can count, have a variety of vocalizations with different meanings (in other words, talk) and can even be deceptive. They have shown us through ethically questionable experiments that fish express feeling pain—not in an automaton type of way—but human-like, such as by rocking and hyperventilating,and that when given a choice, crustaceans choose to avoid pain.They also tell us that fish, along with many species of animals use tools—a trait once considered only human. And that ravens, elephants, chimpanzees and lions are among the animals who use rationality to make decisions….

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Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, has extensively studied animal behaviour and minds. In a paper published in 2000 in BioScience he wrote, ‘[C]urrent research provides compelling evidence that at least some animals likely feel a full range of emotions, including fear, joy, happiness, shame, embarrassment, resentment, jealousy, rage, anger, love, pleasure, compassion, respect, relief, disgust, sadness, despair, and grief.’ Since then, we’ve learned a lot more about the emotional capabilities of animals of many species. 

If we have dogs or cats at home, we can see they experience joy from play and know that play is essential for their physical and mental well-being. But now we know fish also play. Gordon Burghardt, a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, defined play as ‘repeated behavior that is incompletely functional in the context or at the age in which it is performed and is initiated voluntarily when the animal or person is in a relaxed or low-stress setting.’ Over years, he and his colleagues recorded cichlid fish species playing, as he defines it, with a thermometer and other objects….

And do animals fall in love? How nice it would be if we could ask Wisdom, the world’s oldest known bird. She is a Laysan albatross who recently hatched a chick at the impressive age of seventy. She’s just a few years younger than my own mother. She has been raising chicks with her partner Akeakami since 2010, having outlived others.

Dr Claudia Vinke is with the Behavioural Clinic for Animals, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at Utrecht University. In an article about whether animals fall in love, she wrote, ‘There is the longing to be together (forming a bond), being in love itself (a period of no inhibitions in order to enter into an intimate relationship with someone) and sexual cravings (lust).’ She points out animals certainly form bonds—Wisdom and Akeakami surely have—and like for many of us, sex plays a role. Many animals also engage in long, even monogamous relationships. This includes bald eagles, who will find the same partner every mating season, and macaroni penguins, who dance upon seeing each other again.Something surely makes these animals desire to stay with the same partner year after year….

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[T]here are efforts to prove not only that humans are animals, but that animals are persons, of a sort. That’s because with the recognition of animal consciousness, intelligence, emotion and even morality, must come our own moral responsibilities toward other species. We cannot continue to operate as if animals are unthinking, unfeeling beings—machines—when science today tells a different story.

Excerpted with permission from ‘Survival at Stake: How Our Treatment of Animals Is Key to Human Existence’ by Poorva Joshipura, published by Harper Collins India, 328 pages, Rs.499

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